George Will on the value of a classical education

To those who say we are threatened by a suffocating “hegemony” of Western civilization’s classic works, the correct response is: If only that were the problem. The danger is not cultural hegemony but cultural amnesia, and the concomitant balkanization of the life of the mind.

George Will, The Conservative Sensibility

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I have been working my way through George Will’s new tome on political philosophy and history, The Conservative Sensibility. It is an excellent read, even if (especially if) you do not share Will’s political biases. (I do, however.)

The general purpose of the book is to provide a timeline for where the dueling conservative and progressive strains in American political thought emerged and developed. I don’t think there is much controversial content in what Will writes on that account. Conservatives are people who see themselves in the Enlightenment and neo-classicism of the nation’s Founding Fathers; progressives are creatures of Nietzsche’s postmodernism. For folks who did not receive a solid liberal arts education, however, the easy manner in which Will distills historical events and philosophical shifts could be very helpful in understanding how they are situated among moral and other conflicts.

My favorite chapter of the book so far is Will’s defense of a classical education. I think it is safe to suggest that – at least in American public schools and universities – there is a crisis regarding what exactly an education should do for a child or young adult. Education in the US from kindergarten through graduate school has been colonized by Nietzschean progressives who see “virtue” in turning their backs on what have been historically regarded as “the classics.” And they’ve replaced the classics with… Well, a whole lot of nothing, actually.

For most of K-12 education, there is no serious attention paid to history or literature or languages (certainly not the dead languages of the world’s greatest civilizations), which are now often portrayed as tools of oppression. Most attention is paid to subjects that can be easily measured by standardized tests, and by all accounts schools are failing at teaching them as well. If you look at the gaps in academic performance between kids who attend public schools and kids who attend private schools or are homechooled, one thing is clear: kids who are raised on the classics are more literate and analytical individuals. They are challenged intellectually earlier in life and their sense of learning is more systematic and less chaotic. This has been a formula for success for millennia, but educators in the 21st century are rejecting it with predictable results. (This is quite ironic too, as the founder of postmodernism was himself an impressive classicist. I used to be able to read Nietzsche in his original German, and the wordplay with Greek and Latin was fantastic. I don’t think he anticipated his disciples abandoning his intelligence altogether, but here we are.)

Folks on the left love to portray everything as an “existential crisis.” It’s Armageddon 24-7 in their world. Electing a Republican president means a nuclear holocaust is coming. We are at full employment, wages are rising, asset prices are increasing broadly, consumers are happier than they have ever been, demand for benefits is down, but a recession is just around the corner – as if a recession is just going to sneak up on you out of nowhere, because that’s totally how economics works. I read a news article recently that was predicting doom based on the obviously standard economic indicator of recreational vehicle sales. Is it possible to get less serious than that? Americans have endured several decades now of environmentalists predicting the end of life on Earth without trillions of dollars of new investment. When I was a kid growing up in the 80s and 90s, aerosol cans were the era’s plastic straws, because a younger, but substantially similar Al Gore thought the hole in the ozone layer would kill off life on Earth. (In reality, it closed up on its own and he moved on to selling other forms of doom because he has no other shtick.) Now we have politicians saying that we need to support black and brown people in developing nations killing their babies because otherwise they will steal all our natural resources. We need genocide for the environment – that’s a real claim made by liberal political elites in 2019, and they wonder why kids these days feel okay hurting their peers.

The older I get, the more absurd claims that it’s all going to collapse any day now seem. The world never ends; the Chicken Littles in politics just retire to a beach house bought from a lifetime of brokering government contracts. A beach house they spent their life arguing would be underwater thanks to global warming, like the Obamas new mansion on Martha’s Vineyard. That’s how seriously they take their own panics. It’s like Paul Krugman predicting global economic collapse with Trump’s election. If he had actually put his money where his mouth was and went massively short the financial markets, he’d be bankrupt. Because the world didn’t end, because people in the real economy rightfully don’t care about the dystopian fantasies of the chattering class.

The one sector that these folks do not see Armageddon in is the one they probably should: education. The US has long been losing its intellectual hegemony to other countries. Even the Chinese are increasingly choosing to keep their children at domestic universities rather than send them to the American Ivy League. And who can blame them? All US schools are doing now is cranking out kids that will be easily replaced with algorithms (likely written by their peers in India and China). That is a bona fide existential crisis.

America desperately needs to turn its educational institutions around. Right now, the classroom is seen as space for indoctrination rather than a place to teach kids how to succeed and flourish in the real world. We won’t continue to be a superpower or have the world’s largest economy unless we can produce future generations who are willing and able to compete for that status.

Unfortunately, this is at its core a political problem. What postmodernists believe necessarily makes them destructive educators. We did not place astronauts on the Moon by believing that there are no facts, only interpretations. Cancer won’t be cured by opinions. There’s a reason why the Enlightenment was a period of great discovery and the space program died when the hippies of the 1960s went into government and got jobs as teachers.

US taxpayers across the local, state, and federal levels of government spend roughly $1 trillion every year on education. Think about that for a second. One trillion dollars annually. That’s the scale of bad investment in postmodernism right now. We don’t need to throw more money at education consultants and academics to invent ever-new philosophies of education.

The answer to improving education is pretty simple. You want smarter kids? Read better stuff to them. George Will gets that.

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